Arresting God: Red Letter Year 12/17

John 18.1-14

arrest1 After saying these things, Jesus crossed the Kidron Valley with his disciples and entered a grove of olive trees. 2 Judas, the betrayer, knew this place, because Jesus had often gone there with his disciples. 3 The leading priests and Pharisees had given Judas a contingent of Roman soldiers and Temple guards to accompany him. Now with blazing torches, lanterns, and weapons, they arrived at the olive grove.

4 Jesus fully realized all that was going to happen to him, so he stepped forward to meet them. “Who are you looking for?” he asked.

5 “Jesus the Nazarene,” they replied.

I Am (he),” Jesus said. (Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.) 6 As Jesus said “I Am (he),” they all drew back and fell to the ground! 7 Once more he asked them, “Who are you looking for?”

And again they replied, “Jesus the Nazarene.”

“I told you that I Am (he),” Jesus said. “And since I am the one you want, let these others go.” 9 He did this to fulfill his own statement: “I did not lose a single one of those you have given me.”

10 Then Simon Peter drew a sword and slashed off the right ear of Malchus, the high priest’s slave. 11 But Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Shall I not drink from the cup of suffering the Father has given me?”

12 So the soldiers, their commanding officer, and the Temple guards arrested Jesus and tied him up. 13 First they took him to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest at that time. 14 Caiaphas was the one who had told the other Jewish leaders, “It’s better that one man should die for the people.”


In some respects, the arrest of Jesus was a typical arrest. Armed officers, a police informant, catching the perp at a location he was known to frequent, a bit of violent scuffle at the moment of taking him into custody. But in other respects, the account John gives varies from the other three and from really, probably any other arrest ever. Despite being the target of a surprise arrest, Jesus was fully aware of what was coming (v. 4), he asks the questions (v. 4, 7), and he even gives an order to let his friends go – an order the officers obey even after Peter assaults one of them.

This juxtaposition carries forward John’s central theme about Jesus being fully human and fully God. We also see this in the repeated Q&A between Jesus and the squad. Jesus asks the central question everyone approaching him has to answer: who are you looking for? Their answer points to a human: they are looking for a man named Jesus who comes from the town of Nazareth. Jesus responds to their answer with an echo of what the burning bush told Moses, a clear self-identification with the God of Israel: I AM! They were looking for a human and found God. This call and response is repeated again for our benefit so we won’t miss this important moment. We come to Jesus thinking we are looking for one thing and then we find, not that Jesus is something else, but that Jesus is more than we knew, more than we anticipated, more than we could imagine. I think it is also possible to come to Jesus looking for God (especially in our present day culture, where the church has emphasized this so strongly) to find that, to our surprise, Jesus is also human: weak, vulnerable, someone who could be tied up. Jesus transcends what we’re looking for even as he is fulfilling what we are looking for. This is the heart of John’s message to his church, not to vilify people skewing one way or another, but to affirm what they feel strongly about even while encouraging them to see their position is part of a larger whole. John learned from Jesus to be consistent and theologically gentle.

We also see this gentleness on display in Jesus’ interaction with violent Peter. As in Luke, Peter cuts off one officer’s ear, but unlike Luke, John does not record that Jesus healed this ear. Perhaps John wanted to leave us with a sober picture of how violent we can become, and how inappropriate that is for followers of Jesus. I like Dale Bruner’s take on this:

“The Arrest Story teaches two ways to deny Jesus: by handing him over to his enemies, as Judas did and as overly liberal (or weak Christological) theology has done through the centuries; and by defending him too violently, as Peter now does and as overly conservative (or militant) Christianity has done through the centuries. May the Lord protect the Church from faithlessness on the left and from fanaticism on the right, and help her to enter through the Narrow Gate and to walk down the Hard Way of the Center in authentic, faithful discipleship to the divine and non-violent Lord Jesus Christ.” (Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, p. 1039)

It takes a firm gentleness to walk down the center path. It also takes a good bit of imagination to think about these opposites together. The one who is complete control of his own arrest. The one who gets bowed to by his capturers. The I AM who is from a little out-of-the-way town. The Holy One with a rap sheet.

The willing embrace of suffering. That one is really hard because we tend to think that suffering that is willingly embraced can’t be that bad. So much so that we can come to think of words like “arrest” or “suffering” as meaning something different here from what they normally mean. This was a real arrest and real suffering. They seized Jesus and tied him up. They tied his hands, but the last thing he did before they tied him up was heal Malchus’ ear (Luke tells us about the healing). The hands of the Healer bound and led away. Led away to stop him from healing, but led away to his greatest act of healing – healing the whole world that God loves so much.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.